Size Matters

Animals that roam expansive lands in the wild typically do not have the same amount of space to do so in captivity. To replicate this environment ethically, architecture would have to drastically alter the existing typology of zoos while simultaneously altering the public’s expectations of a zoo. Foster and Partners’ ‘Elephant House’ (2008) in Copenhagen attempts to display the megafauna to the public in an ethical manner through providing a stimulating, interesting environment for the creatures.


The exhibit maintains a sense of ‘openness’ through the fenestrated glazed domes covering the enclosure, bringing light into a traditionally closed and dark building. Warm terracotta concrete and yellow sand aim to pay homage to the Asian elephants’ natural habitat of a dry riverbed at the edge of a rainforest (Fairs, 2008). The elephants’ pen provides a myriad of stimulating activities such as mud holes and scattered pools of water throughout the enclosure, allowing the animals to interact and play (González, 2018).


Image One: a large fenestrated domed ceiling changes patterns throughout the day
Image Two: warm terracotta walls and yellow sand aim to replicate a favourite haunt of Asian elephants










Despite the thoughtful consideration of the elephants’ environment and attempts to recreate their native habitat, the architects have failed to accommodate one of the most fundamental needs for the creatures: the space required for each elephant.


Image Three: the typical size of an elephant enclosure, shown at Topeka Zoo


The Association of Zoos and Aquariums dictates that for an elephant enclosure to meet satisfactory requirements, each individual elephant must be provided with 500 metres of space to roam (2020). Compared to the distance a wild elephant travels in a single day, 25-80 kilometres (Cohn, 2006), the area prescribed is a pitiful attempt at being ‘humane.’ While Foster and Partners’ exhibit sets a new standard by providing three kilometres for each elephant (Fairs, 2008), this is still drastically under the distance the average elephant roams on a daily basis.



The elephants’ enclosures do not have the area required to facilitate complex roaming, transforming this natural desire into more simplistic, repetitive movements such as pacing and route tracing, both examples of self-soothing techniques aimed at alleviating stress (2017).


Video One: an elephant route traces throughout their enclosure


Pacing, described as walking in a relatively straight path with patterned turns at each end and route tracing, defined as repeatedly following a long, winding circuit, have been documented in more than 85% of all captive elephants (Greco, 2017). These unusual behavioural patterns form part of a larger issue: that the lack of area has caused cognitive decline and the inability to perform natural tasks such as reproduction (Worland, 2017).


Image Four: the visitors expectations of an elephant enclosure: to be viewing the animal in close proximity


The obvious solution to this crisis would be larger enclosures for the elephants to replicate their roaming distance in the wild, however this would not be sustainable within the current parameters of a stereotypical zoo. This implicates the zoo’s visitors as active participants within the framework of a conventional zoo: accommodating animals’ needs after considering the wants of humans.




The architect is therefore not solely responsible for the elephants’ welfare and highlights the overarching issue of the audiences’ expectations of a zoo. By expanding the elephants’ enclosure to an ample size, the zoo’s visitors would be observing the creatures from afar rather than close proximity. The public’s perception of zoos would consequently have to be altered, allowing for a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship between humans and elephants to occur.






Image One: Davies, Richard. “Elephant House.” 2008.

Image Two: Young, Nigel. “Elephant House.” 2008.

Image Three: Platt, Brian Frederick. “Map of the elephant enclosure at the Topeka Zoo, Kansas, USA.” 2014.

Image Four: Young, Nigel. “Elephant House.” 2008.




Video One: San Diego Zoo. “Elephant Displaying Route Tracing.” 2016.




Cohn, Jeffery P. “Do Elephants Belong in Zoos?” BioScience 56, no. 9 (2006): 714–717. DOI:[714:DEBIZ]2.0.CO;2

González, María Francisca. “Elephant House / Foster + Partners.” Published April 4, 2018.

Greco, Brian J., Meehan, Cheryl L., Heinsius, Jennifer L., and Mench Joy A. “Why Pace? The influence of social, housing, management, life history, and demographic characteristics on locomotor stereotypy in zoo elephants.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 194 (2017): 104-111. DOI:

Faunalytics. “The Big Picture of Zoo Elephant Stereotypy.” Published June 12, 2017.

Fairs, Marcus. “Elephant House at Copenhagen Zoo by Foster + Partners.” Published June 11, 2008.

Reference. “How Much Space Does One Elephant Need in a Zoo?” Last Updated April 4, 2020.

Worland, Justin. “The Future of Zoos: Challenges Force Zoos to Change in Big Ways.” Published February 16, 2017.